Tag Archives: Diana Athill

Reading Death and Looking it in the Eye

Talking about death, thinking about death, reading about death, these are not morbid activities. Indeed, since the only certainties in life are death and taxes, (Benjamin Franklin, 1817) we may as well find out what we can about it. Perhaps we might find it easier to approach our own end if we consider what others say. As reading is my way into understanding the world and my life, it’s books I have gone to.

I belong to a group of wonderful women, originally eight of us, but Diana died a few years ago. Our group has been meeting for more than 12 years, exploring choices and possibilities in our lives, originally for retirement, but more recently about ageing and death. Some months ago we met to discuss our ideal death. Many of us referred to books in our contributions. I report on these before adding the results of further investigations.

The group’s recommendations

These books prompted us to think about death, good deaths, ideal deaths, and guided us in thinking about what we still needed to think about in relation to death. It was a session that contained as much laughter, as much encouragement and support, and as much help to look at our personal challenges as we always find from our group.

Salley Vickers Miss Garnett’s Angel

Ann Cleves Cold Earth

We know that we cannot easily choose how we die, but these two novels described the quiet and unexpected deaths of characters who were unaware that they were going to die. One of our members hoped for this kind of death. Having one’s things is order was considered part of this ideal death.

Max Porter Grief is the thing with feathers

This is a remarkable book, recommended by one group member who was asking the question ‘ideal for whom?’ reminding us that death affects more than the person who dies.

Another member frequently recommends poetry and she proposed the following:

Neil Astley Soul Food

Mary Oliver Wild Geese

Ruth Padel 52 ways of looking at a poem

In addition she recommended a book by Mark Doty, Dog Years, written by an American poet and telling of his experiences of deaths of partner and dogs.

We talked about people who choose suicide or assisted dying. Another reader mentioned Sweet Caress by William Boyd as it depicts the main character planning suicide but called back to life by suddenly realising she is thinking about what to have for breakfast next morning.

My own contribution was to read Canon Henry Scott-Holland’s Death is Nothing at All, frequently read at funerals.

Death is nothing at all.

It does not count.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

Nothing has happened. …

I told the group that it irritates me because it promotes the idea that separation at death is not permanent. But on rereading I had also found that it captures the idea that the dead remain with us, having influenced our lives and we can hear their voices and still think about them.

We also mentioned in our discussion these three writers and their books.

Diana Athill Somewhere towards the End and Alive Alive Oh

Terry Pratchett Shaking Hands with Death. Lecture on You Tube here.

Jenny Diski In Gratitude.

Books to read

Since then, and because I promised the group a list of books on the topic of death, I have noted these.

Before I say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie was published by Penguin Books in 1998. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ruth Picardie described the progress of her illness in a series of articles in the Observer. They are collected here together with emails to and from friends, and a foreword and afterword by her sister and husband.

Dying: a Memoir by Cory Taylor. Her memoir on dying is ‘a remarkable gift’ according to three of her friends, writing in the Guardian.

Margaret Drabble wrote The Dark Flood Rises. It is a novel about several older people who are trying to live well in their final years. She spoke about death in October 2016, in an article entitled I am not afraid of death. I worry about living.

Katie Roiphe has written The Violet Hour: great writers at the end, published in 2016 by Virago. She writes a piece in the Guardian about her own experiences, and those of great writers. It is moving.

A Reckoning is a novel by May Sarton. Laura is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and on learning this decides to make a good death on her own terms. This intention is thwarted by her increasing dependency upon others, but she finds much to be pleased with in her final weeks.

The novelist Helen Dunmore has recently been diagnosed with cancer and wrote about mortality and legacy in the Guardian in March 2017: Facing Mortality and What we leave behind.

Another resource

Dying Matters website, strapline ‘Let’s talk about it’. This is an organisation that aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement and to make plans for the end of life. Their site is a gateway to information and sources of support.

So let’s read about it, talk about it, plan for it. What do you think?

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In which some memoirs are recommended

What’s the attraction of reading memoirs? Is it envy for a life one might have wanted, or relief of a life avoided? I studied history and for me its attraction has always been the lives of people, the details, the narratives, their stories. These have enlivened the most recent books I’ve been involved in writing: Retiring with Attitude and The New Age of Ageing.

What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? It is suggested that while an autobiography is the story of a life, memoirs are stories from that life. In other words, memoir has a narrower focus than an autobiography, and it is often more interesting because it is selections.

It occurred to me then that the memoirs you truly fall in love with have less to do with the people that write them and much, much more to do with who you are when you read them. Memoirs are blueprints. They are maps to the lives we wish we had, or cautions from the ones we’re glad we avoided. [Caroline o’donaghue in Memoirs to Change your Life. See below]

From time to time I read memoirs and in this post I recommend a few. The common characteristic is that they are all from the lives of bookish people: all writers or editors.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

How well I remember the BBC tv series of 1978, which coincided with the republishing of these memoirs. It spoke directly to my emerging feminism. The book was not exactly a feminist tract but it reminded us of the role women can play in war and peace, and in politics, and this can produce another generation to follow them.

I read Testament of Youth after finishing my history degree, and perhaps more than any other book Vera Brittain showed how history, especially the history of war is not only about men and their suffering. The Testament of Youth made me understand that the First World War defined the twentieth century, and that Britain before it was utterly different. It was one woman’s story, but she tells of the sacrifice of a generation and its aftermath. The scars are with us still as the current centenary has revealed.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. First published in 1933, republished by Virago in 1978. 661pp

Many volumes by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! (2015) By Diana Athill was the book choice for one of my reading groups in November. It encouraged some very interesting discussion, about her description of her miscarriage, her family home, her approach to relationships, her life in old age. A volume I go frequently return to is Stet for her stories of the writers she worked with as an editor at Andre Deutsch, including Jean Rhys.

And this is from Somewhere Towards The End (2008)

One doesn’t necessarily have to end a book about being old with a whimper, but it is impossible to end it with a bang. There are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer. I find myself left with nothing but a few random thoughts. One of them is that from up here I can look back and see that although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving – and also more particular opposites such as the neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness. (177)

Diane Athill has led a remarkable life and has the gift to reflect on her experiences, and gift is the right word here for her readers and friends.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

This is Jackie Kay’s account of tracing and meeting her birth parents as an adult. It is also a tribute to her adoptive parents. This memoir explores what it means to be connected to families known and unknown.

It begins when she met her father in Abuja, Nigeria. He will not acknowledge her unless she agrees to join him as a born again Christian, and he behaves in a way that seems bizarre, praying for her for two hours. In his working life he is a noted tree specialist (having met Jackie’s mother in Glasgow University where he was studying), known throughout Nigeria for his work with trees and their healing properties.

Her mother is less obviously successful, moved away from her own tight family in the Highlands, and with a failed marriage and two more children, eventually disappearing into dementia in Milton Keynes. Both birth parents are reluctant to reveal Jackie’s existence to their own children.

The memoir questions what people are entitled to from each other – should Jackie collude in the secrecy, for the sake of the parents who abandoned her? The final triumphant scene is a meeting with her brother at the airport an hour before she needs to leave for her plane. She is embraced by him and his family.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Published by Picador in 2010. 287pp

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd

I read this memoir because of one of its themes, to which I was alerted by an article in the wonderful Slightly Foxed journal. It was about secrets and families. It is an account of a family’s unconventional relationships, although on the surface they are presented as quite smooth. This, I suspect, may not be that unusual: a Swedish mother, family with connections to Rajmai tea and Lalique glassware. These businesses gradually declined between the wars until there was nothing left for Michael Holroyd when he came to adulthood. His family lived together in ritualised hate and with some abuse.

Michael Holroyd is a distinguished biographer, so he knows a thing or two about stories from people’s lives. With interesting relatives he reflects what should or shouldn’t be revealed. Above all he makes it clear that stories from one’s life cannot be told without the stories of many other people.

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd. Published by Slightly Foxed in 2015. 364pp

Related Posts

Memoirs to Change your Life by Caroline o’donaghue in The Pool. November 2015. A list of suggestions from an American point of view.

And more recommendations

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, published in 2016 by Canongate. It is the author’s account of her flight from the Orkneys, into East London and alcoholism and returning to the Orkneys to haul herself back to sobriety.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (2016) published by Bloomsbury, being both the story of her troubled adolescence and living with Doris Lessing, and her account of terminal cancer.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell first published in 1959, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2016. This is Chelsea in the Blitz.

Do you have any memoirs to recommend?

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The Romantic life of the writer Jean Rhys?

It’s such a romantic story. A novelist forgotten, rediscovered and a career reanimated and crowned with the publication of a masterpiece. Jean Rhys’s story is one of suffering, depression and penury. Proof perhaps that creativity arises from suffering.

Except, Jean Rhys’s story teaches us quite the opposite. Her suffering inhibited her creativity. This is my contribution to #ReadingRhys week from 12th-18th September.

282 #RRhys

Seeking information on ‘the late Jean Rhys’

Born in 1890 on the island of Dominica, Jean Rhys came to Europe at the age of 16, spending time in Paris and London. She led the life of a demi-mondaine, as a rich man’s mistress, a model and volunteering in a soldiers’ canteen during the First World War. After the war Ford Maddox Ford encouraged her writing and even established a temporary maison a trois to supervise.

The young Jean Rhys

The young Jean Rhys

She wrote many short stories and three successful novels before the Second World War.

  • 1927 Left Bank and other stories
  • 1928 Postures/Quartet
  • 1930 After Leaving Mr Mackenzie
  • 1934 Voyage in the Dark
  • 1939 Good Morning, Midnight [the link is to my review]

And then, as far as readers were concerned, she disappeared. I expect most people, if they thought about her at all, assumed she was dead.

What kept her from writing?

Several factors combined to work against her.

War: in England during the war she worried about the lack of news of her former husband and their daughter Maryvonne. They were both safe, but she was not able to receive news of them from Holland. The stories she did write were unsuccessful and not published. She and her second husband could not settle and moved out of London.

282 Rhys at window

Poverty: Jean Rhys seems to have had no money at any time in her life. And when her husband, Leslie, died in the late ‘40s and she married Max Hamar nothing improved. And then it got worse because Max was imprisoned for fraud. Don’t imagine romantic attics, rather see her living on the edge in almost uninhabitable bungalows in Devon.

Ineptness: ‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was,’ says Diana Athill in Stet. Jean was quite unable to deal with the practicalities of life. When she arrived from Domenica she had no experience of trains or hot water. Later, in a drunken state she agreed to a contract that gave away far too many rights to any adaptations of her work.

Drink and depression: her inability to cope with practical matters was compounded by her paranoia, depression and tendency to drink. She ate too little and drank too much.

Bad luck seems to follow hopeless people, perhaps explaining the idea that people creating their own luck.

Rediscovery

Jean Rhys was finally rediscovered in the ‘50s through an advertisement from the BBC asking for information about ‘the late Jean Rhys’. They planned to broadcast an adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight.

Francis Wyndham was an admirer and an editor with Andre Deutsch and heard about her rediscovery. He helped her get some stories published, and sent her some money. Diana Athill, also an editor for Andre Deutsch, learned that she had nearly completed a new book. That was in 1957.

Jean Rhys (in hat) with Mollie Stoner, 1970s via wikicommons

Jean Rhys (in hat) with Mollie Stoner, 1970s via wikicommons

Wide Sargasso Sea was not completed for another seven years, until 1964. Her editors provided all kinds of help, but this was difficult to do when she always put a brave face on her difficulties. And at the moment when the manuscript was to be handed over to the publisher, with a few lines left to dictate to the typist, Jean Rhys had a heart attack. She had made Diana Athill promise not to publish without this final amendment. For a while her survival was in doubt, and there was a real risk that we might never have been able to read Wide Sargasso Sea. She did not complete the novel for another two years.

The struggles were not over even when she recovered, although alleviated. But she did complete a memoir called Smile Please.

What we learn

This is not a story of a troubled romantic artist, her troubles somehow enriching the creativity. Jean Rhys’s story reveals that talent is easily negated by poverty, drink and depression. There were times when she felt her brain was empty, like an automatic dispenser she had see on a tube station: This machine is EMPTY till further notice.

Creativity requires encouragement, money, good health, freedom from anxiety and time to write a novel.

Acknowledgements

Two sources were essential for this post:

Jean Rhys (Lives of Modern Women) by Carole Angier, Penguin Books 1985

282 Stet cover
Stet: an editor’s life
by Diana Athill, Granta Books 2000

This post is part of the blog reading week called #ReadingRhys co-hosted on the blogs of Jacquiwine and Solitary Reader

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Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels [Good Morning, Midnight was her fourth] can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was,’ says Diana Athill in Stet. The story of Jean Rhys’s life is remarkable. And her writing is also remarkable and ahead of its time, but, observes Diana Athill, ‘how this hopelessly inept, seemingly incomplete woman could write with such clarity, power and grace remains a mystery.’ While Jean Rhys mined her own life for the material for her novels, we should not make too much of this she warned us:

All of a writer that matters is in the book. It is idiotic to be curious about the person. (tweet from @Standoutbooks)

We can agree with the first half of that quotation without feeling idiotic about our curiosity.

The first four novels were published between the wars, Good Morning, Midnight in 1939. After the war it was thought that Jean Rhys was dead, until in 1957 she answered an advertisement seeking information about ‘the late Jean Rhys’. A BBC radio play of Good Morning, Midnight performed by Selma vaz Dias was being prepared.  Jean Rhys was living in penury in Cornwall, and lived on until 1979, publishing her most celebrated book Wide Sargasso Sea, in 1966.

Good M Mid

Good Morning, Midnight is set in Paris in October 1937. The Englishwoman Sophia (aka Sasha) Jansen is staying in a hotel, thanks to a friend. The novel is told by Sasha, as thoughts are going through her head, so that she shifts place and time frequently, but never looses the reader. As well as the present time, we see earlier times in Paris, and in Brussels. Her voice is unrelenting, bleak, sometimes telling herself to stop speaking, sometimes saying what she would like to be saying out loud, or ventriloquising a room as in the opening paragraph.

 ‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’

There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur. The wash-basin is shut off by a curtain. It is a large room, the smell of cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.

I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.

In these first 100 words she establishes her relationship with the reader, who sees at once an odd, idiosyncratic figure, alone, impoverished, revisiting her past life. The hotel is shabby, bleak – no colour is mentioned. Her stay in Paris will be like the view out of her window, uphill, an impasse. Very quickly she persuades us that Sasha is ‘an inefficient member of Society, slow in the uptake, uncertain, slightly damaged in the fray’.

41 young j Rhys

Sasha is not an easy person: she does not find life easy and nor do other people find her easy to deal with. There is a line that we have all noticed, as we hover near in alcohol, depression, penury, sickness or hopelessness. We struggle to keep this side of the line at all costs. Sasha has crossed the line for good. She is unable to follow her own arrangements for her ‘little life’. She constantly tells herself not to go in that bar, not to have another drink, but immediately enters the bar, orders drink after drink, meets people and suffers from their looks or comments. She knows that she is one of those people whose eye you try not to catch, who you try to ignore on the street. She does not belong, not in her cheap room off Gray’s Inn Road nor in Paris. Her solution is ‘the bright idea of drinking myself to death.’

I have no pride – no pride, no name, no face, no country. I don’t belong anywhere. Too sad, too sad. … It doesn’t matter, there I am, like one of those straws which floats round the edge of a whirlpool and is gradually sucked into the centre, the dead centre, where everything is stagnant, everything is calm. Two-pound-ten a week and a room just off the Gray’s Inn Road. …

She attracts the people who prey off other people; other hotel guests, two Russians, a painter and a gigolo. He does not believe that she has no money. But she feels safe in her poverty. There is nothing further for him to take from her, she believes. It is in the sexual transactions of this world that destitution is clearest. But the final pages of the novel are chilling, shocking. It is always possible, it seems, to slip further away on the wrong side of that line.

Jean Rhys makes a powerful impression on the reader. Who can forget the image of Mr Rochester from the attic in The Wide Sargasso Sea? And who can escape the discomfort of this earlier novel, largely because of what Emma Darwin refers to (in a short blog review) as ‘admitting the reader so absolutely to a consciousness at once so helpless and sharp-eyed’. Linda Grant, writing about Rhys in the My Hero column in the Guardian in February this year describes the effect of her style.

When I read Rhys, I lost interest in fireworks in fiction. Sentence after apparently unremarkable sentence would pass until suddenly you would feel yourself hit in the solar plexus by the accumulated tension. I would look back and ask: how did you do that?

Some of the writing is even surreal, some captures the desperation of the life led in isolation, and some is joyful and funny. Perhaps the most shocking aspect is what AL Kennedy, in her introduction, calls ‘her eloquence in the language of human sexual transactions, chilling, cynical and surprisingly moving’. It is her attitude to sexual transactions, that shocks, even while she craves closeness and will invent it with strangers to stave off bleakness, when alcohol doesn’t do it.

Her achievement, according to Emma Darwin, ‘is in her pitch-perfect depiction – and thereby her validation – of female consciousness and experiences when the lives of women (and the novels written about them) were thought duller, smaller and less interesting than those of (and written by) men. …there’s no self pity there, only a painfully acute self-knowledge.’

I can see her book would be shocking to the inter-war readers: it’s still shocking today. But although disturbing to read, it is also very powerful and affecting. And we should not make too much of her chaotic life as we now can treasure her amazing prose.

41 jean-rhys

Further Reading:

Biography by Carol Angier new edition (2011, fp 1990)

Stet: an editor’s life by Diana Athill (2000)

 

REMINDER: if you have a recommendation for the September Readalong, please mention it in the comments box, on this page or on the ‘about the book group’ page. Thanks Marianne for the recommendation for this book.

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